The Knicks’ 2023 postseason run has invigorated the fanbase and turned the volume at Madison Square Garden up to the days of the Patrick Ewing Knicks teams. Despite losing Game 1 against the Miami Heat, being in the Eastern Conference semifinal has turned the energy at the Garden up multiple notches.
In the 1990s, you couldn’t escape the Knicks and Heat rivalry.
The two teams both made the playoffs in seven of the nine seasons between 1991 and 2000. When Pat Riley was named head coach before the 1992 season, he almost immediately turned the Knicks into contenders, taking them to the NBA championship in 1994 where they lost to Houston. When the Knicks failed to meet those high expectations in 1995, Riley stepped down as head coach.
However, instead of retiring, he took over as Team President and Head Coach of the Miami Heat, and the rivalry took on new life.
From 1996-2000, the Knicks and Heat met in the postseason for four straight years, with New York eliminating Miami three of the four times. However, those series’ were some of the most physical anybody had ever seen.
In 1997, New York was dominating Miami and had a 3-1 series lead before Miami won Game 5 96–81 in a game that is most famous for the brawl that started when P.J. Brown flipped Knicks’ guard Charlie Ward onto the ground while Ward was trying to get a rebound.
During the brawl, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and John Starks left the bench, and the NBA responded by suspending each player for one game but spreading those out over the final two games. Ewing, Houston, and Ward were suspended for Game 6, while Johnson and Starks were suspended for Game 7.
New York lost both games and was eliminated.
The next season, the two teams met in the postseason again and fought again. After New York won Game 4, 90–85, there was a fight between Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson (who had been teammates in Charlotte) at the end of the game. The fight is now famous for the moment when Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy grabbed onto Mourning’s legs in a poor attempt to stop the fight.
In 1999, Miami was the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, but New York eliminated them thanks to an Allen Houston game-winner in Game 5. The win propelled the Knicks all the way to the 1999 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Spurs. However, the Knicks remain the first and only 8th-seeded team in NBA history to reach the NBA Finals. Something the Heat are obviously hoping to change this year.
Even though the presence of Pat Riley added intensity to the rivalry, both teams clashed due to their identities being built around defense and rebounding.
In 1996-97, New York and Miami were the top two teams in the NBA in defensive net rating. In 1997-98, the Knicks were 4th and the Heat were 7th. They both were top eight in total rebounds per game. In 1998-99, the Knicks were 4th in net defensive rating, and the Heat were 8th. They were both top 11 in total rebounds per game. In 1999-2000, they were the 4th and 5th ranked defenses in the NBA.
They’re overlapping skill sets only added to the physicality of their on-court clashes. But we’re seeing that again in 2023.
We already discussed the parallels between the style of play of this New York team and that played by the team in the 1990s. So far in the playoffs, the Knicks are 3rd in defensive rating, while the Heat are 9th. The Knicks are also 2nd in rebounding rate and have the most steals per game, while the Heat average the 3rd-most steals per game. Both teams are also in the top seven in free throw attempts per game as they attack the basket and invite contact.
The teams combined for 49 free throw attempts in Game 1 and while the Knicks outrebounded the Heat by nine, they shot poorly and turned the ball over four more times. It was a back-and-forth battle that could be a sign of things to come with these former rivals facing off in the postseason again.
“That’s one thing that I personally enjoy about this series, it’s gonna be hard fought,” said RJ Barrett after Game 1. “It’s gonna be tough. You gotta go out there and take it.”
“I don’t think anyone thought this game or this series was going to be win or loss in the first game,” added Josh Hart. “This was a tough team obviously”
For Knicks fans, they hope this hard-fought series ends the way the majority of the ones in the late ’90s did, with New York advancing to the next round.